AGE DETERMINATION OF FISHES - National Oceanic and Leaflets/488.pdfAGE DETERMINATION OF FISHES by Fred E. Lux ... AGE DETERMINATION Three basic methods have been used for age and growth determina

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    FRED E. LUX Fishery Resea rch Biologist










    Fred E . Lux U. S. Fish and Wildlife Se r vice

    Woods Hole, Massachusetts


    Span of life in fishes, like size , cove rs an e~treme1y wide range, depending upon species. A tiny European goby t hat matures at little over an inch in length is an example of an " annual" ve r tebrate, running the course of its life within a single ye ar. Other f ishes are known to pass the century mark. Canadian biologists in 1953 determined the age of a 2l5-pound sturgeon, caught by a Lake of the Woods fisherman, to be 152 years.

    Aside from its value in filling gaps in our scientific knowledge of fishes and satisfying human curios i t y concer ning them, age and accompanying growth-rate informat i on i s of vital importance for the management of fishery resources. For instance , where fish are caught commercially, growth rate must be known in o r de r to l earn the size and age at which the fish may be mos t eff icient l y harvested. A further use of age information is in judging t he results of management prac-tices. Knowledge of the average s i ze and age of fish before and aft er management measures are put into eff ect can sometimes show whether or not such plans are achievi ng des ired ends.


    Three basic methods have been us ed for age and growth determina-tion of fishes: (1) observation of the growth of fishes of known age, (2 ) study of fish size-frequencies , and (3) s tudy of seasonal ring formation in hard body parts such as scales and bones. The method used usually depends upon sp eci al problems encountered in age determination of a given species.

    Observation of the Growth of Fish of Known Age

    Fish of known age are held in a pond or aquarium for a number of years so that length f or a given age may be determined by simply catch-ing and me asuring t he f i sh pe r i odically . While the method is direct, it has limited use since it r equires raising fish under artificial

  • conditions where growth rat e may differ from that in their normal surroundings and where maintaining certain species may be difficult . The technique probably has its greatest use in verifying ages that have been determined by other means.

    As an extension of this technique, fish of known age may be marked and released in their normal habitat and then measured when they are r ecaught to learn size for the known age. Small fish are sometimes marked by the removal of certain fins so they can be identified upon capture. Larger fish may be marked with small numbered tags of plastic or noncorrosive metal.

    Study of Fish Size-Frequencies

    The size-frequency or Pet ers en method of age determinat ion depends on the fact that fish size varies with age. Most fishes breed during a restricted period once a year so that size within a given brood year is fairly uniform and distinct from size groups from other brood years. For exampl e, suppose we obtain a large catch of one kind of fish in which all sizes are represented. Let us measure the lengths of all fish in the catch and count the numbers of fish in e ach length interval of, say,

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    a: UJ II)

    ::. ::::J z








    0 5 7 9 II

    MALES (168 FISH )

    FEMALES ( 144FISH)

    13 15



    Figure 1. --The l ength-frequencies of a catch of yellowtail flounder, showing how fish age may be determined from fish size .


    one-half inch for the entire range of sizes. If we now plot the numbers of fish in each of these length inter-vals on gr aph paper, a num-ber of peaks may be evident in the graph because fish of cer tain lengths occur mo re frequently. It may be sus-pected that each clear-cut peak represents a separate age-group because of the restricted range of l engths within each age-group.

    Figure 1 shows lengths of a sample of yellowtail flounder graphed in this way. Males and females have been plotted separately because female yellowtail flounders grow more rapidly than males. Small fish outnumber those of older age-groups because deaths from various causes take a continuous toll.

  • There are two peaks in the graph of males, one at about 8-1/2 inches, representing the average length of one-year-old fish, and a second -at 12 inches marking the average length of two-year-old fish. For females, peaks are shown at 8-1/2, 13, and 15-1/2 inches, repre-senting one-, two-, and three-year-old fish, respectively. The graphs indicate that few fish older than this were present on the fishing ground.

    The size-frequency method works best for young fish, generally under four or five years old. As fish grow older, the spread of sizes within an age group becomes more variable. The peaks of the length frequency graph representing older fish tend to blend together so that it is difficult or impossible to identify them. The peaks of age -groups of female fish beyond one-year-olds in figure 1 already show signs of flattening out and blending toge ther.

    Study of Seasonal Ring Formation in Hard Body Parts of Fishes

    Because fish are cold-blooded animals, their body proc esses are regulated by the temperature of the water in whi ch they live. Growth is rapid during the warm season and slows greatly or stops in winte r. The technique of determining the age of a tree by counting annual rings in a cross-section through the bas e of the trunk is a familiar one. As in trees, seasonal changes in growth rate of fishe s are often re-flected in zones or bands in hard body structures such as scales, oto-liths (ear stones), and bones.

    Fish scales.--Of the hard bo dy part s used f or age determination in fishes, scales are most useful. They are e asy to collect and prepare for study. Of importance is the fact that a few can be removed with little or no injury to the animal since fishes have the ability to re-grow lost scales within a short time. A further advantage, that of permitting an estimation of the past growt h history of a fish from its scale, will be discussed later.

    Scales are of value for age deter minat ion in many of our "bony fishes", a broad grouping which includes most fishes of importance for food. Scales are formed when newly hatched fish complete their larval stages, and soon cover the entire bo dy, with the exception of head and fins. In most species they lie in an overlapping pattern much like shingles on a roof and serve as a pro tec t ive coat .

    Scale growth begins with the f ormation of the scale center or focus and growth is outward from this f o cus , t hough it is greatest toward the forward margin of the sc ale. Fine ridges called circuli are laid down in a circular pattern around the focus as growth proceeds. Many circuli are added to the scale each year.



    ---- CIRCULI

    ANNULI ---'-~c...


    Figure 2. --The cycloid scale of a whitefish (left) and the ctcnold scale of.a sunfish, showing year marks (annuli) and general scale features. Both fish we re two years old.

    Mo s t food and game fishe s have eithe r c yc loid or c t enoid s c al es. These two scale type s are illustrated in figu r e 2 . Cycloid scales, found on trout, minnows, whit efish , pike, cod , an most other soft-finned fi shes, have c irculi which pass entirely around the scal e margin as growth is added. In ctenoid scal es, found on bass, pe r c h, some flounde rs, and most s piny-finned fishes, the foc us is near the r e ar edge of the scale and circuli here ar obscur ed by the tiny spines or ctenii whi ch give these scales their name. It is the c t enii whi c h give the bodie s of such fish a rough sandpape ry fee ling.

    As stated e arli er, fish growth is r eflect d in scale growth. Circuli are wid e ly spaced in warm seasons when fish growth is rapid, and c l ose 1 y spac ed in co ld s easons when it is slow. In so me northern climates, e specially in ice-covered lakes , fish growth stops in winter . The growth of a fish during one year, the r efo r e , is shown on its scale as a serie s of widely spaced spring and summer c irculi followed by a series of clo sely spaced fall and winter cir culi. Since fishes oontinue to grow throughout their lives, this pattern is repe ated each year. The outer edge of a series of clo s ely spaced c irculi is generally taken to be the end of growth for that year and this point is referred to as the year mark or annulus (see whitefish and haddock scales in figures 2 and 4). The age of a fish is determined by counting the number of annuli or year marks.

    In some cycloid scales, such as those on trout, there may be no clear seasonal difference in spacing between circuli . On these s cale s the year mark is sometimes shown as a discontinuous or broken circul us following a series of complete circuli.


  • In ctenoid scales, like those of sunfish and bass, there is often no detectable difference in the seasonal spacing of circuli. Here another feature of scale circuli is relied upon to identify the end of growth for a given year. On these scales the last few circuli laid down in a year are often incomplete in that they do not continue all the way around to the spiny area of the scale. When fast growth resumes in spring the circuli are again complete and cut across the ends of the incomplete circuli inside of them. The first complete circulus of the growth for the new year is considered to be the year mark. This cutting over of circuli is illustrated in the sunfish scale in figure 2.

    Scales may be prepared for study by mounting the whole scales on glass slides or, more commonly, by pressing imprints of the scale cir-culi into transparent plastic. The scale photographs shown are of these plastic impressions. Scales or scale impressions are examined under a low-power microscope or by use of a microprojector like the one shown in figure 3.

    Figure 3. --A microprojector designed for the study of fish scales . The magnified scale image is projected on the frosted glass screen.


  • 1 YEAR - 6 . 5"

    S 12.0 " 2 YEAR -

    3 YEARS - 17.0"

    Figure 4. --Illustration showing how the past growth histoI)' of a fish may be deteImined from its scale. The 18 1/2 -inch haddock was in its fourth season since it has three ye ar marks on its scale and the beginnings of fourth year growth on the scale edge.


  • As fish grow older and growth slows down, with a consequent narrowing of the band of circuli added to the scale each year, it be-comes increasingly difficult to identify year marks. This causes a greater amount of error in the determination of age of older fish.

    A slowdown in fish growth may occur during a growing season and the resulting check in scale growth sometimes resembles a year mark . Where such checks are counted as year marks the age deter mined from the scale will be greater than the true age. These false year marks are sometimes associated with reduced growth-rate at spawning time or with shock, such as injury or disease.

    Growth in length of a fish scale is proportional to the growth in length of the fish itself. Because this is true the past growth history of a fish can often be worked out from its scale through a technique called back-calculation. If the length of a fish at capture is known, it is possible to calculate length at earlier ages from measurements of the scale at each year mark. The increase in length of a haddock in each year, in relation to increase in scale l engt h, is illustrated in figure 4. Lengths at each of the three year marks wer e determined from back calculations.

    The back-calculation method is of importance in fisheries studies since it permits an evaluation of growth-rate of fi sh in all years of life.

    Otoliths.--In fishes that do not have scales, or where annual zones are not clearly shown on scales, it is often possible to deter-mine age from seasonal bands laid down in otol i t hs . Otoliths or earstones, structures formed of calcium in the he ad s of bony fishes, function as organs of balance. Althougb the r e are three pairs of oto-liths altogether, only one pair is large enough to be of use in age determination. Otolith form varies in different species from a flat oval to spindle shape. Growth, as in the scale, is concentric around a central kernel or nucleus (figure 5, page 8). Factors, such as water temperature, that affect fish growth c ause s easonal changes in the density of layers laid down in otoliths and in some cases it is possi-ble to determine fisb age from the banding that r esults. When otoliths are viewed under a low-power microscope, t he layers making up spring and summer growth appear as a white, opaque band. Layers laid down in the fall, and also in the winter in so me fishes, appear as a dark translucent band. A light and a dark band together make up the annual growth, and age in years is determined by count ing the number of dark bands. The otolith from a ye llowtail flounder sbown in figure 5 illustrates the features described.

    For many fishes otoliths show age mo re clearly than scales. They are often considered bette r than scales for determining age of older fi sh .


  • Figure 5. --An otolith from a four -ye ar-old yellowtail flounder. The fish grew most rapidly during its second year and the otolith band in that ye ar is therefore the broadest one.

    Preparation of otoliths for examination varies with the fi sh species under study. In some cases bands show clearly in dried otoliths which may be examined whole or sectioned and polished. For other species, banding r emains clear only if the otoliths are stored in some fluid such as gly-cerine or alcohol, upon removal from the fish.

    Determination of fish age from otoliths is generally no t difficult since little preparation time is re quired. Otolith extraction requires killing the fish, however, a disadvantage for some studies.

    Bones.--Cross sections through the bases of fin rays, the thin bones


  • Figure 6. --The cross section of a fin ray from a 23-inch haddock, showing 7 growth zones. (Credit: F. E. Nichy , U. S. Bureau of Commer-cial Fisheries.)

    that support fins, often show concentric banding that is related to fish age. The age of the lS2-year old sturgeon, mentioned earlier, was determined from a cross section of the thick, spiny fin ray found at the base of one of the paired breast fins of this fish. Fin rays have been used for age determination in a number of species besides the sturgeon, such as catfish, bullheads, and suckers. Zonation is similar to that found in otoliths with a light band forming in the early part of the growing seaso n followed by a narrow, dark band in fall and win-ter. The haddock fin ray cross section shown in figure 6 shows seven pairs of such bands. Age in years is determined by counting the dark bands.


  • Certain other bones of fishes may show seasona...


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